The future of SolidWorks and Cloud Based Computing… Engineer's thoughts……..

***The following opinions are those of my own and do not necessarily reflect those of DASI Solutions or any of its employees………………

I wanted to open with that because with all dynamic and game changing announcements, this one has stirred deep emotions in almost everyone who heard it live.  I’ve heard drastically differing reactions to the news delivered on the first day of SolidWorks World 2010. It was then that the details of a ‘skunkworks’ project that Joe Dunne, Mark Schneider and Mark Biasotti had been working on for the last few years was finally unveiled to the SolidWorks faithful.

“What did he just do?!”………….”What’s that ‘thing’ on the back of that white, widescreen monitor…………and what is SolidWorks doing running on it?!…………..”

That’s right……… was a ‘futuristic’ version of SolidWorks, and it was running on PC’s……Mac’s……Wacom Tablets………and even a Netbook!

My name is Darin Grosser.  I’ve been a part of every release of SolidWorks with the exception the first two…..SolidWorks ’95 and ’96.  I was fortunate enough to find myself in a job early on using a tool that would become the gold standard in affordable, yet powerful, 3D CAD design.  And in my time I’ve seen quite a few exciting and sometimes shocking changes to the software we know and love.  Every time there’s one of those amazing announcements that nobody is really sure how to react, it sends the wheels of debate turning in all different directions.

Cloud based computing is a concept that’s been gaining ground publically over the last few years, though it’s core concept has really been in use for quite some time.  You may have seen commercials talking about the ‘cloud’ during weekend football games or while watching golf. It is already gaining momentum in other technology circles.

Cloud based computing can really be broken down to a very simple explanation.  Pooling the resources of several computers in order to maximize the use of available resources in order to speed up processing time of a given task…….at least that’s my ‘simplified’ take on it.  I personally feel that it is and can be much, much more than that.

I can’t stress enough that the demonstration we saw was NOT just a theoretical concept of how things ‘might’ work if they decided to try it………it was a WORKING prototype.  Actual code running on actual computers, live, right before us.  That means to me that this is much further along than just serving as a Mission Statement or Development Goal.  At this point they are trying to prove out the feasibility and market reaction to such an investment, but the concepts themselves have been in the planning and development stage since long before the SWW 2010 announcement.

With the groundwork laid, let me talk about my impressions of what all this means………..

Computing on a ‘Cloud’:

First of all, Cloud based computing is not necessarily new.  To me, it is just another derivative of the old Mainframes and not quite as old Computing ‘farms’…………but in a much simpler looking and more consumable package thanks to the internet.  There are already thousands of websites where one can login and essentially run an application without ever having loaded it on their local computer.  I personally do this every day with our CRM system and Web Based Customer Support System, but many do it when conducting Online Banking or Tax Preparation, or even when playing deeply involved and elaborate video games.  As a user, I don’t have to concern myself with software updates or data backups.  The only thing I need is a good internet connection, which is pretty common these days.

For high power applications, these web based environments can and are actually running on several computers at once, both equalizing the workload and maximizing the computing power available to the host organizations application.  It takes us from worrying about the individual specs of a users workstation, ESPECIALLY in the instance of an installation based problem, an potentially narrows any potential issue down to one simple thing……….internet connectivity.

My guess is that we will still want the users to have a high end graphics card as they will be serving as a Thin Client at the very least, but all of the things that can, and will, go wrong with installations on the millions of computer configuration combinations could virtually be eliminated with this technology shift.

In all of this I really didn’t even speak to the potential performance benefits gained from running SolidWorks on a ‘cloud’ of computers…….but just think how it might benefit the Simulation tools.  What if when you hit the “RUN” button on your Non Linear Dynamic analysis and instead of your Quad Core with 8 gigs of memory running it (if you are lucky to have one of these…….) it was actually calculating on a whole room of Quad Core’s with 8 gigs of memory?  Or a whole country of computers that might not be in use if they happen to be in bed on the other side of the world while you are working.

The potential here is mind blowing…………………… 

It all comes down to the Cable or T1:

Let’s just assume for a moment that all of the worlds computer support problems were wiped out in an instant with the ‘cloud’.  It still comes down to the Connection.  These days, even 99% up time means that your connection might be down for up to 3.65 days a year.  And as Murphy would have it, those days will inevitability take place during the completion stage of a big design review.  What then?

Well, I really don’t know what contingency they might be working on here besides the fact that any high speed internet connection will do.  These days you can set up shop and virtually any coffee house and in addition to the free WiFi they usually offer, there is a handful of other patrons using their own MyFi connections.  As these secondary connections become more common, I think that there will be an excess of ‘backup’ connection options if a crisis situation comes up, but they may have something else in mind.  I’m sure we will hear more on this to come…….

Aside from potentially losing ‘access’ to the data, the silver lining here was something the team demonstrated for us……..What happens to your DATA when your connection is lost?

Even today, if you are working across the network (and I SERIOUSLY recommend against this for a number of reasons) and you lose your connection, chances are you will lose whatever you did between the time your network hiccupped and the last time you hit Save.  However, as we saw from the cloud demo, your information is Safe and waiting for you exactly the way it looked when you lost your connection.  Remember, the files are not really open on the local computer from a ‘network’ location……they are ‘displayed’ on the local computer but are still running on the cloud computers.  This has the potential to be a major data security improvement.

With connection stability, there is also the issue of Connection Speed.  I really don’t feel this is as much of an issue as some people think.  Remember, the files are going to be opened on the ‘cloud’ and displayed on your local computer.  This won’t be a situation where thousands of files and gigs of data are being transmitted across the internet every time you want to open a large assembly.  ONLY the display data will be ‘transmitted’ across the web.  Before you start to think about how choppy a GoToMeeting with a live SolidWorks demonstration can be, please remember that:

A) SolidWorks is not necessarily Optimized for this purpose.  Currently, SolidWorks runs faster across GoToMeeting by doing simple things like setting your background to White (NOT Gradient), and avoiding constant rotating of the models.  The cloud based version we saw will certainly be optimized to run as smooth as possible across the medium it was designed for.

And B) GoToMeeting data is being calculated on and transmitted from a Single workstation or laptop, not a ‘cloud’ of potentially thousands of computers, all working to push the data as fast as possible.  That means that the user experience across the internet connection will be in the forethought of the code writers as the interface is developed and will certainly be addressed since it is the very foundation of this paradigm shift.

“Multi Platform” SolidWorks…..well, sort of……:

Many of us have been saying for more than a decade that SolidWorks may never run on a Mac.  Technically, since the time Mac’s became available with Intel processors and allowed users can run Windows on a ‘parallel’ desktop, I’ve seen SolidWorks running on a Mac for several years now.  The statement has really been geared towards a native Mac compiled version, which I really don’t think we will ever see now…………

The key to all of this is that the Internet doesn’t care what computer you are on, or whether it is even a computer!  By putting SolidWorks on a cloud and accessing its functions thru the web, it automatically adds levels of compatibility to other platforms, instantly opening up the market space for SolidWorks, and for those engineers relegated to incompatible hardware and OS’s to now be able to use SolidWorks with no infrastructure barriers.

In Summary:

All this being said, there will still be questions about things like Solution Partner Apps and how they will potentially run with SolidWorks on the cloud, but these are the questions that the developers will need to address in the years till this is an actual production system in mass distribution. 

I think there was allot of confusion by those in attendance who think that somehow SolidWorks 2011 will be that very ‘cloud’ based version we are hearing so much about.  It was stated several times by SolidWorks management that we would “be seeing some of these technologies rolling out later this year…”.  What they were specifically referring to what the release of Enovia data management on the ‘cloud’……..NOT SolidWorks on the ‘cloud.’ 

I think that it will still be a couple years till a defined product and scheduled release cycle are set in stone.  Till then, SolidWorks has certainly sent shock waves thru the industry with this announcement ONCE AGAIN!  They have, time and time again, shown that they will settle for nothing less than a leadership position when it comes to providing state of the art technology to their customers, while at the same time driving their competitors to try to keep up in this ever changing and dynamic business we are in.

Buckle up……this ride is showing NO SIGNS of slowing down!!!

Darin J. Grosser – Engineer – DASI Solutions

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